Darwin Digitisation in 2020| Digital Collections Programme


A tooth from Equus, a wild horse collected by Charles Darwin in Argentina on 10/10/1833

In 2018 the Museum embarked on a pilot project to document and 3D surface scan 10% of the fossil mammals that Darwin collected on the Voyage of the Beagle. During this project we focused on 20 fossil mammal specimens to investigate the potential that digitisation holds for this collection. This was also the first time that researchers have fully documented, researched and conserved these historically significant specimens since many of them came over to the Museum from the Royal College of Surgeons during the second world war. The fossils included in this pilot were released onto the Museum’s Data Portal and uploaded to Sketchfab.com to share these new resources with as wide an audience as possible.

Due to the success of the pilot project the Museum is undertaking two new digitisation projects with Darwin specimens in 2020. The first of these projects is to complete the documentation and release 3D models of the remaining 90% of Darwin’s fossil mammals and the second project will digitise the fish that Darwin collected aboard H.M.S Beagle.

Darwin’s fossil mammals

Among the thousands of plant, animal, rock and fossil specimens Darwin collected while aboard the Beagle, he collected 13 species of fossil mammals, eight of which remain today. During the pilot phase of the project we focused on all the fossils that have been attributed to Megatherium, Mylodon and Toxodon.

Artist impressions of Glossotherium and Scelidotherium. Images by Mauricio Antón.

During this final stage of the project we will be focusing on the fossils attributed to two species of ground sloth:, Glossotherium and Scelidotherium; a species of ancient horse, Equus neogeus, and Macrauchenia, a large, long-necked and long-limbed, three-toed native South American mammal in the order Litopterna. Macrachenia that resemble a modern-day llama whole not being related to any living mammal today.

“I had no idea at the time, to what kind of animal these remains belonged. The puzzle, however, was soon solved when Mr. Owen examined them; for he considers that they formed part of an animal allied to the guanaco or llama, but fully as large as the true camel. As all the existing members of the family of Camelidae are inhabitants of the most sterile countries, so may we suppose was this extinct kind.” (Charles Darwin, writing in January 1834)

Macrauchenia crop

Artist impression of Macrauchenia by Mauricio Antón

We are hoping to complete the documentation and release new models of these specimens by the end of 2020 so in order to do this have had some new team members join the project team. Lorna Steel will be taking care of the documentation and research while Lucia Petrera will be conserving the specimens including ensuring they are properly housed in protective boxes and undertaking any repairs they need.

“It’s a real privilege to be asked to document these specimens. Many years ago I came across a copy of Darwin’s ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ in a charity shop, and once I started reading, I just couldn’t put it down. Here was a young man taking on five-year voyage into the unknown, recording his thoughts along the way. His accounts jump from describing an insect, plant or a landscape, to the appearance, customs and attitudes of the individuals and tribes that he meets. I’m no stranger to fieldwork in remote locations, but I take my hat off to Darwin and other naturalists of his generation for what they achieved.” Lorna Steel

“I’m really looking forward to start to work on the Darwin fossil mammal collection, conserving such historically important specimens to preserve them for present and future generations.” Lucia Petrera

Darwin’s fish

On average about 250 visitors per year to the fish section – almost a visitor every single day of the year. The Museum has 85 lots of fish specimens collected by Darwin. In contrast with the fossil mammals these fish have already been documented and their data released onto the Museum’s Data Portal, but they do not have any images with them. Digital images can be very useful to researchers and help towards their research, such as understanding which species they belong to. Darwin’s specimens are mostly preserved in alcohol and are particularly fragile and therefore unsuitable for repeated handling/transportation. Digitising enables rapid access to researchers worldwide whilst limiting wear and tear of the original specimens. When digitising, some of the most useful aspects to capture for scientific researchers are scales, fin rays and body proportions. To capture these features a 2D photograph is taken of each fish from the left side (lateral), and for some species they are also photographed from the top (dorsal) and underside (ventral). Once this work is complete the images will be released onto the Museum’s Data Portal to share this new resource with the world.

BMNH 1972.4.25.1 Paralichthys orbignyanus small.1500x2957
Paralichthys orbignyanus with Darwin’s handwriting visible on the label.

Darwin studied all aspects of natural history during his five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle. The specimens he collected inspired his later theories on evolution which were revolutionary not just in his time but are still relevant to this day. Darwin’s specimens are particularly important not only because they were collected by Charles Darwin but because most are the first specimens of their kind to have been identified as species new to science.

We hope that by sharing new digital resources will allow more access, provide new learning opportunities and bring Darwin’s discoveries into the 21st century. Find out more at www.nhm.ac.uk/darwinsfossils or follow us on twitter @NHM_Digitise and @NHMFossilMammal.

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